This is a startling look at the holocaust through the eyes of a nine-year-old German boy. Bruno is the son of a Nazi Commandant. As a result of a promotion, Bruno and his whole family leave their lovely home in Berlin and follow Father to his new assignment—head of Auschwitz concentration camp. Bruno can see into the compound from his bedroom window, but he’s sheltered by his parents and extremely naïve. It’s this very naivety that makes this book appropriate for children as young as ten.
Mr. Boyne’s words flow very nicely, but the style is old-fashioned, almost simplistic. It’s in keeping with Bruno’s innocence. At times, however, the book almost doesn’t reveal enough information. Without some prior knowledge of the holocaust, World War II, and Auschwitz in particular, young readers might not even realize what’s going on throughout much of the book and may need some explanation. For example, Bruno calls the camp “Out-With,” and though he’s told in conversation that he pronounces it wrong, the proper name is never given until the Author’s Note at the end. Of course, an older audience will pick up on this immediately, but probably not kids. He also calls Hilter the “Fury” and is also called out on his mistake, but we are left to assume he’s saying “Fuehrer.” Hitler, however, is mentioned by name once or twice. And the horrors of camp are reflected more than viewed directly, which is good, but at times kids may not understand what’s happening.
Bruno lives at Auschwitz for a year at least, and though he learns bits and pieces, he never really does figure out what the camp is all about. I see the author’s intention, and I applaud that he keeps the entire book very appropriate for children, but Bruno’s innocence is almost to the point of impossibility. It is my one complaint. His friend Shmuel, a Jewish boy that he befriends on the other side of the fence, also comes off a little unrealistically. Though Shmuel is living in hell, he never displays much emotion, he never responds to Bruno’s total lack of understanding, and he never attempts to make his friend understand.
It is this naivety and innocence, however, that make such a shocking mirror. We are shown Bruno’s dismay at being uprooted from his home. We see his casual attitude toward wealth. We see his sister’s shock and horror at finding a louse egg in her hair. We’re told of the compassion Father showed to his mother’s dying friend. We experience the grief of Grandmother’s funeral. Yet it all underscores in a truly startling way the humanity of the Jews who suffer these things and more only a few yards. We see how Shmuel’s fingers are wasting away. We hear Bruno innocently assume there must have been a minor outbreak of lice in the camp because their heads are shaved like his. We watch him eat food in front of Shmuel without thinking. We hear him talk to Shmuel about “playing.” Bruno never really understands the life-and-death struggle, the horror going on just past his house.
But the reader knows. By the end of the book, even without any guidance by adults as to particulars, even without any graphic revelations by the author, the reader will have figured out the gist of what’s going on behind the walls. At one point, perhaps the most poignant moment of the story, Shmuel thinks, “It was almost as if they (he and Bruno) were exactly the same really.” The injustice comes through loud and clear.
While I do maintain that ten-year-olds could read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, be aware that it does have a few disturbing moments. They’re veiled or related matter-of-factly, like the shooting of a dog by a Nazi officer. Or like the marital strife between Bruno’s parents that suddenly ends with the reassignment of this same officer. Or Bruno’s observation that Mother lately needed to self-administer a lot of medicinal shots of sherry. It is the ending, however, that I won’t give away but I will caution parents about. Again, it is implied and not shown, but the readers know. And it is very disturbing.
Kudos, Mr. Boyle, for a touching story, for letting speak the voices which were silenced long ago, and for doing it in a way that gives kids an understanding of the past without overwhelming them. In my opinion, it is stories like this one–which teach children through emotional involvement–that are our best defense against repeating history.
After reading, I learned that a movie based on this book came out in 2008. (Where have I been?) I found the entire movie on YouTube and watched it the same day. It’s beautifully done. I thought Bruno and Shmuel are more believable and the problems between the parents develop more understandably. There are some profound moments from the book, however, that are left out. It’s a serious film, but appropriate for the same audience as the book. Well done and highly recommended.
Related post: Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne, 2006, Book Review